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Panel Sides With W-B Police Union In Dispute

June 5, 2018 GMT

WILKES-BARRE — A panel of Commonwealth Court judges on Monday sided with the Wilkes-Barre City Police Benevolent Association in a dispute about whether holiday pay and other special compensation should be included when calculating the pensions of retired officers. The judges wrote in an opinion filed Monday that an arbitrator who heard the case and previously sided with the union “did not exceed his authority because his award did not require an illegal act or a public employer to do something it cannot otherwise do voluntarily.” The dispute began in November 2015 when the city solicitor sent retired officers Christopher Hardy and Tino Ninotti letters advising them their pensions had been improperly calculated and would be recalculated. Around the same time, the city calculated monthly disability pension benefits for officer David Morris without including holiday pay. The union filed a grievance on behalf of all three officers seeking to have the extra forms of compensation included in their pensions. The police union had argued overtime pay, court pay, holiday pay and Act 120 pay all should be counted along with police officers’ regular salaries when determining their pensions. The city, meanwhile, maintained that it stopped including the disputed forms of compensation in pension calculations after a 2001 arbitration award involving other officers. The arbitrator, Richard C. McNeill, sided with the union in a decision filed in December 2016. But the city appealed, and Luzerne County Judge Lesa S. Gelb overturned the decision last August, finding McNeill exceeded his authority by ordering the pension plan modified without the benefit of a statutorily required study. The union appealed to Commonwealth Court, whose judges noted in their ruling Monday that they were limited to reviewing areas such as the regularity of the proceedings and whether the arbitrator abused his powers. Based on the proceeding records, the judges concluded that McNeill’s award did not amount to a “modification” of the pension plan, but in fact maintained the status quo. The judges noted that the city took no action after the 2001 award to change the pension ordinances to codify the new policy. “Because the city never formally changed the plan, the arbitrator found its past practice of withholding contributions and including the disputed forms of compensation in pension calculations remained intact,” the judges wrote. “Therefore, his award did not modify the plan, as (Gelb) concluded; it simply sought to maintain the status quo.” Because McNeill acted within his authority, the judges found that Gelb incorrectly reversed the award. The court reinstated the arbitration ruling. City spokeswoman Tyler Ryan did not return a message seeking comment. Contact the writer: jhalpin@citizensvoice.com 570-821-2058

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